October 15, 2006
Scientist Sees Art Through a Microscope
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- As biochemist Michael Davidson peered at monkey DNA through his microscope more than two decades ago he saw more than scientific form and function. He saw art.
Davidson eventually began taking pictures of crystallized substances ranging from vitamins to beer as seen through a microscope. His images have been used for calendars, posters, greeting cards and women's sportswear but most profitably on neckties.
The "Molecular Expressions" ties were such a hit in the 1990s they earned millions for Davidson, the tie company, a charity and Florida State University's National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, where he heads the Optical Microscopy Division. The lab's $1.5 million share provided seed money for microscopy research that continues to advance science - and art.
"I can still remember today saying that I couldn't hire and couldn't get an artist or someone who was a designer to create more beautiful designs," recalled Irwin Sternberg, former president of Stonehenge Ltd., which made the ties.
Davidson is one of the most successful of a small but growing band of microscope artists.
"These images are going to be out there more in the world, whether they be used in commercial products or advertising," said Dennis Kunkel, a microbiologist in Kailua, Hawaii. He left the University of Hawaii's faculty four years ago to focus on making and selling electron microscope photos for everything from T-shirts to textbooks.
Davidson's fascination with the artistic potential of what microscopers call "the small world" began in the 1980s as a researcher at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta. At first, he was unable to replicate on film what he saw through the microscope because of a technical problem.
"It didn't have the vibrant colors and just the 'wow' type of effect," Davidson said.
He built his own darkroom and in the mid-1980s produced a cover photo of liquid crystalline DNA for the journal Nature.
"The biggest challenge is preparing good specimens," he said. "And that's where most microscopers fall short."
Davidson gained an edge from his previous day job studying the physics of polymer crystallization in Florida State's chemistry department.
"I learned how to crystallize things that don't want to crystallize," Davidson said. "To take these colorful images in polarized light we have to get some sort of order into the specimen. The best thing to do is to crystallize it."
He started looking around the lab for chemicals he could crystallize - vitamins, amino acids, proteins, salts.
In the meantime, he was selling his pictures, which appeared on calendars and greeting cards and women's sportswear.
None of those products hit it big until he stumbled on Sternberg's Stonehenge, a necktie company in New York City.
The first Molecular Expressions ties in 1993 were based on microscopic images of vitamins. They were moderately successful. Then Sternberg asked for microscopic pictures of beer and other alcoholic beverages.
"I thought he was nuts," Davidson recalled, but he gave it a try and it paid off.
Sternberg also persuaded Mothers Against Drunk Driving to endorse the Cocktail Collection in exchange for a share of the proceeds. They were marketed as being the only way motorists should "tie one on" before driving.
But beer and other liquids presented a new problem.
"You basically can't see anything in the microscope," Davidson said. "The first three weeks to a month was just wrought with failure. I was almost ready to give up."
One thing that beer does have, though, is a lot of sugar. Davidson evaporated the beer to the point the sugar began crystallizing. Then he froze some samples and sprayed others on silicon to bring out different patterns for each of more than 100 brands.
"I would take less than a milliliter of the beer out," said Davidson, who says he prefers light beer. "I tasted a couple of them. They tasted nasty and I dumped most of it down the drain."
Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream and Chicago collections, the latter including deep-dish pizza, proved more palatable. The pizza was shipped frozen in dry ice to Tallahassee, where Davidson and his assistants baked it.
"The nice thing about the microscope, it takes only a small quantity so we only needed a little, bitty tiny snip of cheese," he said. They ate the rest.
Besides creating artistic images from nature, Davidson discovered manmade art hidden from the naked eye deep in the recesses of tiny computer chips. He had begun photographing integrated circuits because he thought their microscopic patterns were artistic.
"One day I happened across this doodle," Davidson said. "As I swung into a higher magnification I noticed it looked like Waldo," the character in children's books.
"The very next day I discovered Daffy Duck on the same chip," he said. "I said, 'This is very strange.'"
He searched other chips and found about a dozen doodles he posted on the Internet in 1998. Only then did he find out from chip designers that the graffiti was just a way to have fun and personalize circuitry they had spent months or years developing.
They sent him about 300 more examples, including other cartoon characters, maps, flags and even license plates. The chip graffiti makes up the Silicon Zoo section of Davidson's Molecular Expressions Web site, . It also includes the beer images and other microscopic art and science.http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu
A technique Davidson and his staff helped pioneer recently led to the development of a new microscope capable of looking at proteins on a molecular level. It is expected to help biologists unlock secrets hidden in living cells.
"I look at things more from a scientific perspective," Davidson said. "But I also try to see the art in just about everything I do."